“Few films, in my own experience, have bristled with so many problems”: Michael Balcon on Scott of the Antarctic

In our Winter 1948/49 issue, Michael Balcon, the legendary British producer and head of Ealing Studios, recalled the manifold challenges faced by the crew of the Robert Falcon Scott biopic.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

I am usually rather reluctant to write about my own films, for I feel that this is a task for professional critics and writers and not for the man who has been responsible for the production of a picture. In departing from my usual custom, I want to make it clear that these comments on the production of Scott of the Antarctic are in no way a commentary on the technical quality of the picture but simply and solely an account of some of the technical problems which we came up against.

Few films in my own experience have bristled with so many of these problems, and although I can take no personal credit for overcoming them, I should like to pay tribute to those people who were working with me and achieved wonders in overcoming difficulty after difficulty.

One of the major reasons for these problems was our decision to make the picture in Technicolor. I am not at all sure just when this decision was taken. The idea was there from the very inception of the film, when Charles Frend and Sidney Cole – the director and associate producer respectively – came to me in 1944 with the suggestion that we should make a picture about Scott’s expedition, and as the production reached discussion stage, this idea of colour had its place well in the forefront.

It was an idea which met with a certain amount of opposition, for quite a number of people felt that snow was essentially a subject for black-and-white production. How far wrong that conception was can be judged from the film itself. In reality, snow and ice are anything but black and white. A glance at Dr. Wilson’s fine paintings when he went on that expedition confirms this. We soon realised that colour would give enormous additional value to the picture, with a great range of exciting and colourful backgrounds which would have tended to become somewhat monotonous in a black-and-white production. We have certainly no regrets at taking this decision, but I must confess that at the time we did not realise fully how much we were undertaking.

The first major problem was that Osmond Borradaile, the cameraman, was to head a three-man unit to the Antarctic regions to obtain background material. It was obvious that the heavy tri-pack Technicolor camera could not possibly be used on such a trip. The alternative was the relatively unknown Monopack, which uses only one film in an ordinary film camera. But Technicolor themselves were doubtful about this. They had little experience to guide them in the behaviour of Monopack in the below-zero conditions to be expected in the Antarctic, and could give us no guarantee of success.

We did put forward the alternative suggestion that it might be possible to film this material on 16mm and have it blown up. It was a scheme which had been used for documentary purposes during the war. Technicolor were no longer doing it, however, and, in any case, the chances of success seemed to be far less than with Monopack.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

We had to take the gamble on Monopack, therefore, but as a safeguard, Borradaile was told to shoot covering scenes in black-and-white. In making this decision, we knew that we would be facing yet another difficult problem if the Monopack failed and Borradaile returned with black-andwhite only. Our problem then would have been whether to continue with our Technicolor plan, and do without the authentic Antarctic background scenes, or whether to make the whole picture in black-and-white.

Fortunately for us, the gamble came off. Monopack more than fulfilled our expectations, but we had several months of acute suspense in front of us before we knew this. The suspense, in fact, began even before Borradaile had reached the Antarctic. No Monopack stock was available in this country, and arrangements had to be made for it to be flown to Montevideo, where Borradaile would pick it up. It arrived at Montevideo only a matter of hours before Borradaile’s ship was due to sail to the Falkland Islands.

Borradaile himself accompanied the stock back to Hollywood, where he awaited the processing report. His cabled information that everything was all right was an enormous relief to us, and we were able to go ahead with our plans for using Monopack on our further locations in Switzerland and Norway, this time with several of the players.

Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of suspense in that there could be no rushes in colour, owing to the fact that the stock had to be processed in Hollywood, and we had to wait for six weeks or so before we received a report, and several weeks more before we could see the rushes for ourselves. 

Camerawork was complicated to a certain extent by the fact that Borradaile was free only for the Antarctic and Swiss locations. Geoffrey Unsworth took over for the work in Norway, and Jack Cardiff photographed the studio sequences.

Of the three, Jack Cardiff probably had the most exacting task in that he not only had to bear in mind the techniques of his two predecessors on the picture, but had to match up the lighting of three different locations and to match up the normal tri-pack Technicolor with the Monopack. The result, I think, shows that he succeeded in doing an extraordinarily effective job, and even those of us who are aware of the varying conditions and processes find it almost impossible to tell the difference between the scenes.

Behind the scenes of Scott of the Antarctic

Inside the studios, we obviously had to use artificial snow and ice. I sometimes feel that the press as a whole has given too much emphasis to this aspect of the production – though understandably, perhaps, because the snow used had an undoubted news value in that we were trying out a new process based on foamed urea-formaldehyde, which was dubbed “Fuff” for short. Snow has always been a major difficulty in filmmaking, and this new process proved to be almost uncannily like the real thing. Nevertheless, any emphasis on this artificial snow is not really fair on the production, for most of the snow and ice scenes shown in the picture are genuine. The substitutes, however, had to be used for certain close-up sequences filmed at Ealing. 

Excellent though it was, “Fuff” was difficult to match up because of its whiteness. On location, the sun shadows were always dark blue, never black. Jack Cardiff overcame this by the use of blue filters. The ice surfaces also presented difficulties when reproduced inside the studios. In Norway, in particular, there were masses of frozen ridges. These ridges had to be reproduced by the use of plaster casts, covered with “Fuff”. Cardiff also had another lighting difficulty in achieving that dull greenness that one finds inside a tent, and his use of green filters achieved this effect.

Throughout the production, in fact, the cameraman faced difficult tasks. In Switzerland, the sun angles were too steep, for at that time of the year (during summer) the the sun was right overhead; whereas, later in the year in Norway, the shadows were very much longer, the light not nearly so strong and turning yellow in the afternoon. Technical problems abounded in all directions. No sound was recorded in Switzerland or Norway, apart from the sounds of sledging, skiing and dogs. The dialogue, therefore, had to be dubbed at the studios afterwards, though in actual fact there was relatively little to be done. Location dialogue requirements were kept to a minimum and, fortunately, these sequences were those of the men on the march, when they did very little talking.

The use of doubles also presented matching problems, in that in some cases different doubles had been used on each of the locations, ranging from the Antarctic to Norway. No artistes were taken to the Antarctic, a limited number to Switzerland and the principal players to Norway.

Behind the scenes of Scott of the Antarctic

Quite apart from the actual production problems, we found ourselves involved in many months of research in our efforts to ensure the most complete accuracy possible. We had to seek permission from the many survivors and relatives of the deceased members of the expedition for everyone to be portrayed on the screen. Our script writer, Major Walter Meade, spent a considerable amount of time in talking to these survivors and relatives in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the people he was to write about. And wholehearted cooperation came from a wide variety of sources. The late Lady Kennet, for instance, threw open to us her library of books on the Antarctic and also lent us many volumes of press cuttings; and we had invaluable assistance from the Scott Polar Institute at Cambridge.

The need for accuracy called for research into the type of sledges, tents and skis used by Scott and his party, and from commercial firms we received almost unheard-of assistance in the loaning and reproduction of goods taken on the expedition – items such as the original horn gramophone, old Primus stoves, packets of syrup and sugar, cameras, tins of beef-tea, bottles of onions and pickles. Not the least attractive of these relics was the milk chocolate taken by the explorers, which was made especially for us from the old recipe. The fortunate members of the unit who sampled it have every reason to appreciate this piece of assistance from the chocolate firm concerned!

Smoothing out many of our problems were our two technical advisors, Quintin Riley and David James, both of whom have had considerable first-hand experience of Antarctic exploration. All these many people who cooperated so enthusiastically and conscientiously in the production of Scott of the Antarctic have earned the deepest thanks of the whole unit who themselves had so many technical problems with which to grapple.